The Jefferson City Jays put two painful droughts to rest Friday night.
With one fell swoop, Jefferson City snapped a streak of five straight seasons without a berth in the state playoffs, as well as ending a 10-game losing streak against its crosstown rival, the Helias Crusaders.
Michael Onunkwor scored a wide-open layup with about eight seconds remaining. The Jefferson City junior's go-ahead basket slammed the door on the Jays' 65-63 win against the Crusaders in the championship game of the Class 6 District 9 Tournament at Rackers Fieldhouse.
"I'm just really happy for the guys," said second-year Jays coach Tony Phillips, who beat the Crusaders for the first time in six tries. "I'm happy for Jefferson City High School and our student body and our kids. It's been a long road back to the top."
Jefferson City (12-14), the No. 2 seed in the district, advances to play in the Class 6 sectionals at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Waynesville. The Tigers (14-11), the No. 3 seed in District 10, won Friday's championship game 43-39 against top-seeded Parkview at Lebanon.
Jefferson City trailed for just 1:29 of the 32 minutes in Friday's district championship, which was far from the case in the Jays' two regular-season losses at home against the Crusaders.
"The difference is we led most of the game," Phillips said. "In the first two games, it seemed like we were trailing a lot."
Top-seeded Helias battled back to tie the score at 61 on a 3-pointer from the right wing by Malcolm Davis. That snapped a streak of more than 26 minutes in which Jefferson City held the lead.
Kevion Pendelton answered on the other end for the Jays, splitting the lane and driving for a right-handed layup with :21 remaining. That made the score 63-61 in Jefferson City's favor.
Davis was fouled on the other end and made both ends of a 1-and-1 to tie the game again with :14.8 to go. Rather than holding for a last-second shot, Jefferson City attacked the basket quickly.
Sterling DeSha, who led the Jays with 18 points, dribbled up the court through the Helias defense. After dribbling toward the right wing, DeSha cut back toward the lane to attack the basket. However, Desmond White of the Crusaders moved into the lane to double-team him.
"I was driving to the middle and wanted to make something happen," DeSha said.
That left Onunkwor wide open on the right block. DeSha jumped into the air, threw a pass over the reach of Davis' hands and Onunkwor scored what he said might be the easiest basket he's ever made, laying it off the glass for an easy two to put Jefferson City ahead 65-63.
After a pair of FTs by Malcolm Davis, Michael Onunkwor scores the go-ahead basketball for the Jays.— Greg Jackson (@actionjaxon05) March 6, 2021
Jefferson City leads Helias 65-63 with :07.0 to play. pic.twitter.com/LnKaG4q2SL
"We were supposed to run our transition play, but they were sagging off of it," Onunkwor said. "He drove in and found the easy dump-down, I was wide open."
Helias called a timeout with :07.0 remaining. Joe Rembecki in-bounded the ball to White, who dribbled the ball up the left sideline. White cut back to the middle at the top of the key and was ready to shoot a 3, but Aaron Stallings never left his side and was there with two hands in his face.
White's 3-point shot for the win bounced off the front of the rim with less than a second remaining, and Jays players immediately swarmed to mid-court to celebrate their first district title since 2015.
"We wanted to apply a lot of pressure, especially on the perimeter," DeSha said. "We didn't want them to get whatever they wanted, we wanted to make them work for it."
One of the reasons for Jefferson City taking an early lead was its 3-point shooting. The Jays made all three 3s in the first quarter — two by Pendelton, one by Steven Samuels — and Koby Sands added two more in the second quarter, as the team finished 5-of-6 beyond the arc in the first half.
"They hit shots, and the Pendelton kid got in the paint at will in the first half, which really dug us a hole," Helias coach Joe Rothweiler said.
The Jays used a 9-0 run late in the first quarter to build a 21-13 advantage.
"Early in the year, we were giving up the 10-0 runs," Phillips said.
Jefferson City ended the first quarter with a 23-15 lead. Helias answered by opening the second quarter on a 9-3 run to pull within two at 26-24 with 3:31 to go in the first half.
Damon Johanns played a big first half for Helias. The senior forward led the Crusaders with a double-double of 16 points and 12 rebounds.
Johanns finished off a three-point play with :14 left in the second quarter, scoring six straight points for Helias to cut Jefferson City's lead to 31-28 at halftime.
"He had a tremendous career," Rothweiler said. "He's a senior, he's devastated right now. He wanted to win that game so badly for his teammates and his coaches, and he feels like he let us down.
"But he had a great game, and we wouldn't have been here without him."
The Jays weren't as accurate from 3-point range in the second half, but they still finished the game 8-of-15 from deep. DeSha made a pair in the third quarter, and Quinn Walker hit a 3 from the corner in the closing seconds of the quarter to extend Jefferson City's lead to 48-41.
Helias made a push midway through the fourth quarter, as White and Davis combined to score 20 of the team's 22 points in the final eight minutes.
Davis went coast-to-coast for a layup with 1:56 remaining to cut the Jays' lead to 59-58. The Crusaders got a pair of defensive stops, but they came up empty on each ensuing possession with a chance to take their first lead since 13-12.
"If we would've gotten that lead, it would have been a whole different story," Rothweiler said. " It would have taken the wind out of their sails and would have allowed us to do what we do well down the stretch, which is hitting free throws and holding the ball."
One of those Helias possessions ended in a turnover, one of 16 in the game for the Crusaders. They committed just five turnovers in Tuesday's district semifinal win against Sedalia Smith-Cotton.
"Athleticism played a very big part in this," Onunkwor said. "We were the more athletic team. We put in a lot of work with our strength coach, and our practices are very intense as well."
Davis led the Crusaders with 22 points, followed by White with 16. They'll be the only starters returning on a team that finished this season with a 19-7 record.
"We really like what we've got coming back next year," Rothweiler said. "We've got some holes to fill, but there's a few hungry guys who will put the work in."
Three other Jays joined DeSha in double figures in scoring. Pendelton finished with 12 points, Samuels tallied 11 points and Onunkwor's game-winner gave him 10 points.
"That's a testament to the other kids," Phillips said. "We preach all the time that we're more than just Sterling. I think Sterling does a really good job of drawing attention, and our kids are doing a better job of understanding how teams defend Sterling and where we can attack.
"When we share the basketball, we can be really good."
Friday's win was the first for Jefferson City against Helias since Jan. 20, 2015, a 62-56 double-overtime victory at Rackers Fieldhouse. Six weeks later, the Jays won the district championship.
"A new JC is on the way," Onunkwor said.